Richards: How Northwestern support services can learn from Tarana Burke

Amira Richards, Op-Ed Contributor

In January, Northwestern hosted Tarana Burke as a keynote speaker part of the ‘Dream Week’ activities commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. Founder of the international #MeToo movement, Burke spoke eloquently about her journey and intentional commitment to dismantling cisheteropatriarchy — oppression of women and LGBTQ+ individuals by cisheterosexual men — by way of engaging in uncomfortable conversations.

Captivated by her words and story, I resonated with her describing the need for a cultural shift with emphasis on community healing and holding our own communities accountable. In this vein, it’s valuable to question the effectiveness of Northwestern’s support services in adequately and competently serving all students.

Burke posited that Northwestern is a community, and students as part of this community deserve protection and safety. Her question to the school’s administration based on reading the mission statement was: “How are the policies and practices about sexual violence committed to ending sexual violence on campus?”

I’ll take it one step further: How are these policies and practices intentionally serving Black students on campus? For example, the Office of Equity describes itself as “fostering an environment… free of discrimination and harassment.” Similarly, Counseling and Psychological Services describes itself as “fully committed to providing services that affirm the dignity, worth, and value of all individuals.” The mission of the Center for Awareness, Response and Education is described to create a “culture of healthy sexuality.” CARE-affiliated student organizations — Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators and Masculinity, Allyship, Reflection, Solidarity — are described as “providing education and generating dialogue about sexual health and sexual assault,” as well as “engagement around healthy masculinity,” respectively.

Based on my personal experiences as a black womxn, these organizations often miss the mark at advocating for the most marginalized students at Northwestern. What’s missing is a fundamental interest in the value of consistent collaboration with black students and black student organizations. To be frank, one or two black students in a room is not enough because blackness is not a monolith. Failure to reach, or at least attempt to reach, the myriad of black experiences is a gross disservice to communities who would benefit from partnership the most.

I reflect on my Northwestern experience towards the end of Black History Month, a time in which black folks feel emboldened to celebrate the black experience unapologetically. An unfortunate part of the black experience, however, is the consistent need for self-advocacy in the face of adversity, inequity and lack of representation. We are tasked to advocate for ourselves and our community in a society not committed to doing so. Northwestern is no exception.

As privileged as we are to attend this institution, the responsibility still rests on black students, along with the organizations that represent us, to do the heavy lifting to constantly educate others, in addition to maintaining focus on our studies. Offices and organizations devoted to educating students about sexual health and providing support services often times remain predominantly white organizations. I personally find it difficult to reconcile the consistent advocacy for these organizations at the expense of the students they continuously marginalize. This inherently creates a distrust of support services and administration, in general.

We already know there is a stark difference between intention and impact. We know the impact — failure to reach black voices due to lack of consistent collaboration with black students and their respective student organizations. Perhaps the mission should be resolve and commitment to the incorporation black voices of all intersecting identities. Perhaps the goal is to move away from tokenism, the few events here and there, or the few black faces added to a table. Having been one of those few black faces, I’ve found the lack of personal responsibility disheartening. Perhaps these peer education and support services should be consistent in efforts to advocate for and listen to black students on campus.

The key words: listen and receive. Be willing to take the discouragingly similar narratives of black experiences on this campus at face value and be open to constructive criticism and feedback.

My last quarter of my undergraduate career at Northwestern has offered me ample opportunities for self-reflection. Despite the challenges I’ve personally faced during my time here, likely not so different from the experiences of many other black students, I am hopeful that the support systems at my soon-to-be alma mater will take up the challenge to listen. Listen with the intention of holding the many different truths of black experience on this campus, followed by active and incessant pursuit of collaboration. My truth and my experience at Northwestern have led to discoveries that have changed me forever, and for that, I am thankful.

Amira Richards is a Weinberg senior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.